I‘ve likely said a lot of obvious things in my time, but I expect ranking high on that list would be saying something like “Geez, that Judy Garland can sing, eh?”. But I wonder how obvious that is these days? Sure, everyone knows that Judy’s version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard Of Oz is a classic piece of American music and that she’s been in countless musicals, but I wonder – particularly with a great deal of words being spilled over the darker aspects of her life – how many people really know that she can SING. And I mean soul-bearing, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raising, pure unadulterated song emanating from her voice. I can think of no better evidence of this than her version of “The Man Who Got Away” from A Star Is Born – it raised every goosebump on my skin as I listened to a woman attempting to purge all variety of demons from inside her.
It wasn’t just the emotion pouring out that was impressive, it was also a deep command of her voice that she used to shift on a dime, retain her pitch and control power. Oddly enough, traits that she seemed to share with her own offspring Liza. In Cabaret, Liza Minelli’s songs are all worked into the film as part of her night job working in the local cabaret club (both films manage to make all the songs – at least the vocal parts anyway – diegetic) and essentially comment on the progress of the story at each point. Though it’s a fantastic idea to provide some context for each song, they easily stand alone as single performances because of director Bob Fosse’s creative choreography and Liza’s natural ability (and I would guess instinct) to grab the spotlight. There is more artifice in Cabaret‘s musical numbers due to them being confined to the stage, but there is no question about Minelli’s vocal chops. Like her famous mother, Minelli has slowly become known primarily as a persona, but let’s be clear – she could sing with the best of them.
Though less emotionally resonating than anything Garland sings within A Star Is Born, Minelli’s songs are sung with full gusto, natural flair and – where have you heard this before – complete control. It’s a bit at odds with Minelli’s character of Sally Bowles, though, since she comes across as the impromptu party girl (who calls people “Daahling!”), always seeming to live life to the fullest, but in reality is all false bravado and desperately seeking approval. This drives her desire to be a famous actress, though perhaps not as much as the need to show her father that she really is worth consideration. And so she finds herself in Berlin in 1931 bravely working the Kit-Kat club, fending off suitors (unless of course they may prove to be beneficial in some capacity) and waiting for that one Hollywood agent to discover her. In the meantime she lives in a boarding house and more than happy to meet and greet a new British tenant named Brian who is hoping to make his way as an English teacher. Sally wastes little time trying to seduce Brian, but he resists. She flippantly says “…unless you don’t sleep with girls…” and as he pauses before answering, she realizes her misunderstanding. In a wonderful moment – so much more realistic and contrary to much modern day fare – she isn’t shocked by this revelation that Brian’s taste lies more with men than women and essentially refuses to leave his room. She forces her friendship upon Brian and he all too gladly receives it. She’s still smitten with him due to his open nature (when she tries to shock him with “Have you ever slept with a dwarf”, he quickly responds with “Yes once, but it wasn’t a lasting relationship…”) and they seem ripe to mesh with the morally loose society around them. At the same time, there’s growing anti-semitism and swelling nationalism with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Many aren’t overly concerned about it (including wealthy Maximilian – the shared friend and lover of both Brian and Sally), but midway through the film we get the only song sung outside the confines of the club: a stirring version of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” led by Nazi youth and sung with a growing intensity by the majority of an outdoor cafe. It’s not just disquieting, it’s downright terrifying – especially as we see an old man not singing and sitting alone at a table, looking despondent at what he envisions is about to happen to his country. After witnessing the scene, Brian asks Maximilian “Do you still think you can control them?”. His little shrug before he gets into the car speaks volumes about the dangers of inaction. It speaks to Maximilian’s selfish character as well – cheating on his wife with both Brian and Sally shows he has no particular allegiance. Except perhaps to money. It makes the world go round after all (or so the song says…).
As A Star Is Born opens to a “Night of Stars” relief fund event for motion pictures, the world of 1950s Hollywood is a little less frightening than 1931 Berlin. But perception can drive one’s fears and anxieties…Norman Maine is one of the scheduled performers at the event, but he’s once again MIA so the producers decide to skip ahead to the next act: a big band with a young singer named Esther Blodgett fronting it. They kick into their first tune when a heavily drunk Maine shows up backstage and trips, bumps and bullies his way on stage. Esther sees what’s developing in the dark corner and incorporates his inebriated dancing into her act to make it all seem planned. Afterwards, he’s very thankful for her help, but still boorish to everyone else. As she leaves, she recognizes his issues, but still sees something “nice” inside. His career has started to slide and his dependence on booze has been creeping up. What caused what isn’t clearly stated, but the more he feels like the spotlight has waned and the public have forgotten him, the more the booze takes precedence. Fear of failure is a curse for the celebrity and the film presents this in an achingly real fashion. It’s doubled when you consider Garland’s own troubles in the few years previous to the film and there’s little doubt where many of the barbs at the studio system, uncaring fans and overall machinery come from (Garland and her husband’s production company produced the film as a comeback vehicle for her). Maine tracks down Esther the following day and quietly eavesdrops on a jam session with her band. It’s at this point that she lets loose with “The Man Who Got Away” and you can see her performance literally pull Maine into the light (the use of light and colour throughout the film is exceptional). Partially he sees that chance to get back to relevance by bringing her forward, but she has also renewed his enthusiasm for the art itself. And so begins the classic setup of the fading star helping the new talent with only one possible ending…
After getting her in with the studio, Maine is sent off to do location shooting and Esther (now renamed Vicki Lester by the individuality-hating studio that requires conformity) gets bogged down in grunt work. There are some particularly sharp jabs at the studio system as she is plopped on an conveyor belt through various departments. The most obvious inspired-from-her-own-life segment is the studio’s makeover of her face – Garland had always been terribly self-conscious of her appearance as studio boss after studio boss had tried to tweak her looks on screen, so when she comes out of the assembly line with blonde hair and caked on makeup, you can see the direct link to the blonde makeover done to Garland for 1943’s Presenting Lily Mars (when she was only 21). Not until Maine returns and arranges for her to take the place of a singer who has left another film in mid-production does she finally get a chance to shine. The film shines here as well by taking a simple film premiere and building it into a centrepiece for Garland herself without ever sacrificing the flow of the overall story. As they watch the film from the audience, we are brought into the movie where Vicki plays an actress in a big stage production. After singing an odd half-blackface rendition of “Swanee” to close out the play, the actress sits on the edge of the stage and sings a song to the audience about her career and life. Within that song, we get flashbacks to earlier parts of her career where she sings other songs. So these individual numbers become song flashbacks within a song within a play within a movie within a movie. But there’s never a question of which layer she’s currently in – it’s done effortlessly through George Cukor’s direction, the ingenious construction of the sequence and some wonderful slightly surreal sets for the flashbacks. As terrific as James Mason is in the role of Norman Maine (his ability to switch from happy drunk to absolutely menacing is a sight to behold) and as great as the melodrama of the story is, Garland and her songs own the film.
As does Minelli and her club performances in Cabaret. Michael York is lovely as Brian, the rest of the cast (including Joel Grey as the slightly wicked, slightly creepy master of ceremonies to both the audience of the club and the audience of the film) is great and the claustrophobia of Berlin feels quite real on screen, but everytime Liza sings and Fosse’s choreography kicks into gear, the film soars. Minelli (like her mom) too often gets associated with the oddities of her personal life, so let’s hope she is never forgotten for the quite spectacular way she proudly owns that Kit-Kat club stage. There’s never a false note in her voice or those performances – they are simply pure entertainment. When Sally gets on stage, she delights in being there, her uncertainties having been left in the dressing room and her confidence demanding the spotlight. It’s probably safe to say that it’s a good fit for Minelli as well – though one could say that about her entire performance during the film. If Sally is all blather and false front, Minelli acts the character superbly. It’s the kind of character that can become annoying ever so quickly, but Minelli finds just the right touch to make her endearing. As for Fosse, the way he directs both the dancing and the filming is masterful. Having just watched his first film Sweet Charity attempt to experiment with all manner of different choreography and film tricks (with unsuccessful results for me), it was ideal to see him restricted to the stage for each of these numbers. It seemed to open up his creativity even further to perfect each and every routine. Cukor too was hitting some interesting creative notes – apart from those set piece songs (along with the sets, the use of a minimal set of colours makes them distinctive), he uses still photographs to help advance the narrative in a couple of sequences. The first usage of it is quite effective as it covers a period where the two are separated from each other and gives a unique feeling of loneliness for both of them.
Romance between the main characters is inevitable in both films – Vicki falls for her mentor and he for his starlet while Sally and Brian’s close friendship leads to an experiment in sex and into an initial very loving relationship. But the films give enough foreshadowing with their concurrent themes so that the viewer isn’t overly surprised as things fall apart. The rich elite in Germany ignore what’s happening under their noses (or even buy into it) and the Hollywood studios turn away from their has-been stars once they are of no use to them (as do the fans). Even once Maximilian has left the country (for Argentina) and left Brian and Sally to focus on each other, their future is in doubt. The film clearly says that “life is a cabaret” and it should be lived to its fullest, so each realizes they must remain true to themselves. Unfortunately, as the final unsettling distorted mirror shot of Nazis in the club’s audience shows, their countrymen did not. In A Star Is Born, the studios and fans raise their stars to places from which they can only fall – no matter how great a mentor Norman Maine is to Vicki, no matter what he has done in the past and no matter how caring and kind he is when sober (Garland and Mason fit together very naturally during these moments), he’s doomed. His public fall is painful to watch (in particular the Oscar ceremony scene when he pleads to the audience “I need a job…”) and his private one is simply tragic.
Both musicals handle the artifice of their musical segments within the story without resorting to fantasy and even use them to help advance the story. This helps make them both classic musicals and among the best films I’ve seen all year.